Chapter 37 - The Importance of Cheerfulness

Posted in The Forgotten People

In Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare has notable passage:

DON PEDRO: In faith, lady, you have a merry heart.

BEATRICE: Yes, my lord; I thank it, poor fool, it keeps on the windy side of care.

A merry heart keeping on the windy side of care - there we have, in a sentence, the importance of cheerfulness.

In the humour of our race there is a great quality - a subtle essence which has its special value at any time, and a superb value in war.

Amid all our troubles and anxieties we must remember how to laugh. Those who tell us not to be optimistic, not to cheer at the news from North Africa, do us a disservice. They are asking us to turn our backs on a great tradition. Cheerfulness is a shining weapon in our national armoury. Hitler and Mussolini have forgotten, if they ever knew, how to laugh. It must be a sad business to be a dictator, anyhow. He has established himself as a superman; he must be maintained as one. Pomp and rhetoric must be his companions. He must not laugh; nor must other people in his presence, for - who knows? - they might be laughing at him. If Mussolini, rehearsing his facial contortions before the mirror, with jutting jaw and blood-charged face, had ever had the wit to laugh at himself, he might today be the leader of a happy people and not an object of contempt.

If anybody ever writes a history of the human mind under the strain of war, he will give a chapter of honour to the British people under the blitz. There, he will find few heroics, oddly little black rage, no imitation intellectualism, no showing off. On the contrary, he will find a strange and enduring mixture of brave wit, patient humour, high spirits and merry talk in the midst of dirt and discomfort and danger.

Humour is something about which you cannot argue. We all think we have it, and resent any imputation to the contrary as a deadly and villainous assault. Yet we must admit that humour varies; that there is, to put it generously, one glory of the sun and another of the moon and another of the stars. Take the three people from one or more of which most of us have sprung. Scots have a dry, pawky wit, as a rule solemnly pronounced and full of a lingering after flavour. They have a rare quality of delivering their best shafts at themselves, and are the authors of most of the anti-Scottish tales. The Irish have an iridescent wit, light and buoyant. They have what to many people is an almost incomprehensible quality of being angry and amused at the same thing at the same time. But they do not, as a rule, joke about themselves. The Englishman, to the outsider, is a matter-of-fact, commercial fellow, with an unemotional face and an unadventurous mind. This is a shallow picture. True, he has as a rule very little merely verbal wit, though the moment you say so the ghosts of a dozen Birkenheads will come to vex you. But he has - and I now speak of the average man - a deep, chuckling humour, which is of the very stuff of his character, and one of the secrets of his mastery.

It is of course, hard to strike an average of any race. British humour ranges from the studied verbal felicities of Oxford and the sharp Cockney repartees of the London cabman to the not always refined stomach comedy of Lancashire. But if the last analysis were made we would, I believe, find in this capacity for making good cheer in the midst of disaster the real explanation for that unpretentious fortitude which has always, in spite of intellectual errors, brought our race to victory.

Let me return to the illustration of the Englishman. It is part of his tradition that he must pretend not to take anything too seriously, not even himself. That is why the French, of whom we do not know very much, since tourist Paris was largely populated by foreigners, have never understood the English; for the French are witty, but not really flippant, and take serious things seriously. They take the Englishman to be a strange and untimely joker whose occasional gravity must therefore be hypocritical. In his latest sketch of his own experiences in France after the outbreak of war, Somerset Maugham refers to the French criticism of the levity, the ribald songs and boisterousness of the British soldiers in France. It was something they found difficult to understand, for was not war a serious business? Yet you and I, who are of the blood, know that a merry heart goes all the way, and that a man who can jest at danger is the one who is the most likely to see it through.

I was much struck last year by the cheerfulness in the Lancashire aircraft factories. Wherever I went, among people hundreds of whom had in the bombing experience the sudden arrival of brutal and horrible death in their own homes and streets, I found smiling and determined eyes, and tragedy turned quickly to comedy by some ludicrous story of the blitz.

As General Wavell reminded us in a published lecture on leadership, the Germans, after the last war, set themselves with Teutonic thoroughness to study the reasons for British success. They, so to speak, isolated the humour germ and saw value in it. For all I know, they might have labelled it "Vitamin X". They even attempted to explain and teach it to their young soldiers. In one of their manuals they reproduced Bairnsfather's immortal cartoon of Old Bill and the young recruit in a shell-shattered hut in France. The recruit looks up nervously and says, "What made those holes?" Bill removes his pipe and says, laconically, "Mice". The German editor added a footnote: "It was not mice that made the holes. It was German shells."

These great qualities are part of our own inheritance in Australia. The Italians at Bardia and Tobruk, early last year, may have thought the Australians queer people to march to action singing "The Wizard of Oz". But Bardia and Tobruk were taken.

The Führer of Germany goes to address his people surrounded by guards and bayonets, and the only interruption that is allowed is drilled and disciplined applause. The Prime Minister of Australia has no guard, and his speech is interrupted by the raucous humour of a score of disrespectful interjectors.

The real explanation of the sovereign importance of humour is that it is an individual thing. No Government department regulates or distributes it. It is neither rationalized nor nationalized, nor socialized, nor organized, nor finalized. It is closer to a man than his clothes, for it is a part of him.

No politics based upon gloomy fanaticism can succeed with us, for, to our eternal salvation, we shall always laugh at the wrong time - which will probably turn out to be the right time.

We have proved a hundred times in our history that the strength of a nation is in its individual men and women, and that no formal drill or regimentation can stand against a people who bring to the struggle those unspoiled individual qualities of courage and enterprise and good humour and endurance which are the essence of victory.

20 November, 1942